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The Miserable, Mythical, Magical Marmiton

Representing Culinary Apprenticeship in Early Third Republic France

Michael D. Garval

Revealing paradoxes abounded in early Third Republic French representations of the marmiton, or culinary apprentice. Investigative reportage and reformist discourse exposed apprentices’ miserable existence while still depicting these young fellows as playful and carefree. Conversely, popular marmiton mythology, particularly in children’s literature, idealized culinary apprenticeship, amid glimpses of harsh living and working conditions, while also highlighting admittedly rare opportunities for ambitious apprentices to achieve substantial public success. Max Jacob’s children’s book Histoire du Roi Kaboul Ier et du Marmiton Gauwain provides an emblematic example with its parodic fairy-tale rendering of celebrity chef Auguste Escoffier’s extraordinary triumphs. Ultimately, while enchanting, the rosy popular vision of the magical marmiton obfuscated exploitative child labor practices underpinning the whole culinary enterprise in this supposed golden age of French gastronomy.